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(Nimrod) Njabulo S(imakahle) Ndebele Biography

political literature south johannesburg

Nationality: South African. Born: Ladysmith, Natal Province, South Africa, 1913. Education: St. Peter's High School, Resettenvelle, Johannesburg, 1929-31; Amanzimtoti (Adams') College, 1933-34, earned teaching certificate; University of Witwatersrand, A.B. in Zulu language and political science 1948. Career: Assistant teacher, Khaiso Secondary School, 1935-45; assistant teacher, Madibane High School, Johannesburg, 1945-53; principal, Charterston High School, Nigel, 1953-57; inspector of schools, Middleburg Circuit, from 1957. Awards: Esther May Bedford prize, 1937, for UGubudele namazimuzimu.

PUBLICATIONS

Short Stories

Fools and Other Stories. Johannesburg, Raven Press, 1983; Harlow, Longman, 1985.

Play

UGubudele namazimuzimu. Johannesburg, University of WitwatersrandPress, 1941.

Other

Rediscovery of the Ordinary: Essays on South African Literature and Culture. Johannesburg, COSAW, 1991; Manchester, England, and New York, Manchester University Press, 1994.

Bonolo and the Peach Tree, illustrated by Vusi Malindi (for children).Johannesburg, Raven Press, 1992.

* * *

The relationship between politics and art is by definition always mediated by reflection. We distinguish only between immediate action, on the one hand, and delayed action, on the other. We do not choose between politics and art: rather, we participate in the dialectic between them. To understand this is to understand the creative possibilities of both.

For Njabulo Simakahle Ndebele, the role art plays in political struggle has been central to both his artistic development and his pronouncements on South African literature. Western critics have welcomed Ndebele's finely crafted prose in Fools and Other Stories as a pleasant change from the didactic propagandeering of politically motivated literature. J. M. Coetzee invokes Dostoevsky and Chekhov. Certainly, Ndebele's tales, coupled with his essays, helped move South African literature beyond a stagnant "protest literature" obsessed with constructing "a totally debased people whose only reason for existence is to receive the sympathy of the world." The tales are set in a location but eschew descriptions of overt racist tensions in favor of accounts of less sensational conflicts emerging from the range of inhabitants.

However, Ndebele has not left the political arena and entered a specious "objective" aestheticism. He does resist the narrow view that politically committed writing must identify and draw moral conclusions from oppression because, as he states in "Beyond 'Protest,"' it can too easily lead to "the simplification and trivialization of moral perception," thereby allowing "the rhetoric of protest" to replace "paying critical attention to the concrete social, political details of that oppression."

But rather than endorsing apoliticism, such concrete details broaden the writer's scope: "Politics is not only the seizure of state power, it can also be the seizure of a woman's burial society in the township." Ndebele focuses his storyteller's gaze on these localized, everyday instances to build a sense of the human potential for resistance and intervention in the monoliths of political power.

In Fools, a young boy defies his parents' middle-class, Westernized values by refusing to play the great European masters on his violin. Another boy masters the fear of getting a vial of water for his sick mother from a local sorceress. In the title novella, a Boer cracks a whip preparatory to beating the narrator, a weak and abusive man, who realizes "I knew then that his whip was all there was to him." In silently resisting, he thinks, "my silence was my salvation; the silence of years of trying to say something without much understanding…. This would be the first silence that would carry meaning." Such limited epiphanies power Ndebele's creative work, which explores complex political issues through their manifestation in seemingly insignificant social contexts.

Ndebele demonstrates that literature crafted with a sophisticated awareness of the only metaphorical connection between "narrative and the real world" can nonetheless create and consolidate "a subjective confidence which will enable people to have the will to go out with an inner commitment to smash the oppression that is keeping them down." Such a revitalizing of both the aesthetic and the political components of literary work imparts a significance to Ndebele's writing that resonates far beyond South Africa.

Victoria Carchidi

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